This editor's introduction to the issue explores the instability of photography as a material object and as a concept and how photography in and of the geopolitical imaginary of Asia expands notions of the photographic.
It may seem redundant for a photography journal to have a thematic issue on photography. After all, photography is the journal's overall concern. But this issue examining the third word in Trans Asia Photography's title is an opportunity to reflect on this foundational concept.
Perceptions of photography have changed over space and time so that photography itself emerges as an ever-evolving idea. Indeed, this lack of fixity and inherent contingency are hinted at in the maddening circular logic of the Oxford English Dictionary in which photography is defined as the process, practice, or art of taking photographs; photographs are defined as images or pictures chemically or digitally produced using a camera; and a camera is defined as a device for taking photographs.1
It is fair to say that the farther we have gone down the road of photo studies, the more uncertain photography has become. Indeed, the farther we go, the more it seems that the term photography, rather than solidifying into a mass of common understanding, has refracted into many pieces, as light going through not so much a lens but a prism.
This instability comes in part out of a growing body of scholarship examining the photograph both as a material object and as a concept. Studies have pointed to an expansive understanding of photography that extends beyond simply an image produced by analog or digital technology to include a desire that anticipates this technology;2 an event encompassing the actors and technologies involved in its taking, making, and viewing that need not require an image to be photographic;3 a set of social relations shaped by the oral and haptic that resonate in affective ways;4 a time-based medium that, rather than capturing a moment in the past, projects multitemporal possibilities;5 and a container for varying modes of signification beyond the indexical,6 among others. In recent years, this expanding understanding of photography has led to its exploration through the frameworks of manipulation, doubt, ephemerality, invisibility, and even the nonhuman.7
This growing, expansive sense of photography has at least in part been precipitated by a growing awareness of historic and contemporary photographic practices from around the world. Specifically, photographic practice from the region of Asia, from the beginnings of the medium, has pointed to new understandings of photography through its close relationship with other media and its uneven relationship with the “real.” This kind of inquiry has opened the possibility of understanding photography's relationship with the real as not part of its ontology but rather as part of its semiotics. And yet, even as we acknowledge the limited scope of indexicality as a conceptual framework, it continues to be privileged in the ways photography in and of Asia is conceived and talked about or against. In part, this is because of the centrality of Western photos in narratives of photo history rather than anything natural to photography itself. That geographic locator has an always already silent presence.8 Its centrality is built into the logic of the history of photography. Are Asian photos forever condemned to be examples of only localized history? Or can they alter the course of how we understand photo history and even the nature of photography more broadly?
TAP's overall aim is to build photo studies from a different grounding. New scholarship, exhibitions, and image production primarily outside of the West are pushing a new inquiry into the identity of photography. This issue does not ask, What is photography?, but rather the inverted query: Photography is what? Or photography is how? That is, the goal of this issue is not to get at an ontological understanding of photography but rather to understand how photography is constituted through its objects, through the kinds of things that are perceived as photography. The articles in this issue question indexicality as a defining feature of what we understand as photography, consider the photograph as a material object beyond the image shown, and examine how photographer and subject are variables that do not adhere to a fixed set of positions or relationships. In these ways, the articles point to how photography within and from Asia adds to our understanding of the nature of photography itself.
Menglan Chen's article examines spirit photography in China in the early twentieth century to explore how the notion of photographic likeness is not exclusively linked to indexicality. Her article explores the connection of spirit photography in China with both Western spirit photos and with Daoist divination rituals to gain insight into the reception and perception of photography in China and how the ancient search for the invisible reconciled with the newer obsession with documenting the real. By focusing on the Chinese notion of photography as “capturing shadow” rather than “writing with light,” she provides a provocative study on the nature of photographic likeness that reflects the visual and epistemic shift in the relationship between seeing and imaging at the turn of the century.
Franz Prichard's article shifts focus from images of photographs to how photo-based materialities can create an affective environment that approximates the experience of sound rather than imagery. Specifically, it examines the contemporary artist Komatsu Hiroko's 2017 installation Jinkakuteki-jiritsu-shori (The execution of personal autonomy) and how it reflects a sense of capitalist, industrial urban excess, both in what the photos show and how they are physically arranged. This affective dimension is likened by Prichard to Japanese noise music in the way it impacts the viewer as something heard and felt in waves that build on each other, providing a different take on Tina Campt's notion of what it means to “listen to images.” This kind of sonic feedback not only is about excess but also is generative of something new: grasping the reproductive processes of capitalist society and the neoliberal state.
Rahul Sharma and Özge Calafato further probe the material dimensions of photographs by reminding us that a photograph is far more than an image printed on a surface. Sharma examines an album of nineteenth-century hand-colored photographs from Japan. Through the lens of a conservator and by using conservation methodology and an analysis of primary textual sources, he shows how transnational networks of information transfer, labor, and capital worked together to produce the conditions for hand-colored photos of Japan. The article also shows how the commodities of paper and dye were manufactured in centralized industrial firms outside of Japan, but the transnational traffic of these materials shaped perceptions about photographic production, associating Japan with transparent hand-colored photos despite their European origins. Calafato arranges a portfolio of vernacular images from early twentieth-century Turkey that she collected from local marketplaces for the Akkasah: Center for Photography based in Abu Dhabi. Having the privilege to examine not only their fronts but their backs over an extended period, she calls our attention to the writing on the backs of the images, as much indexical traces of the sitter as his or her image on the front. Her introduction to the collection shows how the notes on the back help contextualize and provide insight into the images, specifically, how they reflect the performative nature of self-representation of the citizen of the new Turkish state through the notion of the “photogenic.” This article is a provocation of what vernacular images do at a certain time and place in the world.
The review essays by Rashmi Vishwanathan and Haely Chang probe the subject position of the photographer in relationship to subject and archive, respectively. Vishwanathan examines two recent exhibitions in New York City on the work of photographers Farideh Sakhaeifar and Gauri Gill. Through a notion of play, as Vishwanathan suggests, the relationship between photographer, subject, and viewer is confounded to very different ends. Gill's work is a collaborative process that subverts the singular notion of author or the idea of the subject as a thing to be gazed at, thus working against a colonial legacy of photo making and taking that ultimately leaves the viewer feeling unmoored from their cozy perch of looking. In a different way, Sakhaeifar implicates the viewer by using stock war imagery, such as those from Syria and the ongoing Palestinian occupation, from archives like Getty Images that abstracts the impact of war and normalizes American military interventionism. The images are manipulated to contain ghostly figures or surrealist juxtaposition of objects to American complicity in a way that the viewer becomes maker and taker, consumer and enabler. Chang reviews the exhibition The History of Women in Korean Photography I curated by Lee Kyungmin and on view at the Buk-Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in South Korea. Spanning from the nineteenth century to the 1980s, the exhibition presents a chronological narrative of the work of women photographers as identified in archival traces such as women's magazines and photo clubs up to the 1970s and then the work of ten women photographers in the 1980s, some of whom studied abroad. Through the theme of movement, Chang offers insight into how the global is evoked in a number of ways. Interestingly, the exhibition in Seoul was on view at the same time as the similarly themed exhibition The New Woman behind the Camera at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, which garnered considerably more attention in the Western press. Understanding both exhibitions as projects that draw from old archives to create new ones begins to do the work of what an expansive study of photography can be.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “photography”; s.v., “photograph”; s.v. “camera.”